What my childhood horse, Puzzle, taught me about leadership

When I was nine, my parents divorced and Mum and I moved from the big city to a small, tight-knit country village called Apiti. It was a massive culture shock for the both of us.

Mum bought me a horse called Puzzle. I think she was trying to make the transition easier for me. The problem with Puzzle was that no one could ride the little sucker.

Every time I jumped on his back, he would buck me off. Every time ANYONE (including all the local expert horse whisperers) jumped on his back, he would buck them off. Mum tried everything under the sun to ‘fix’ Puzzle and force this pesky pony to do what horses are supposed to do. Get ridden!

The summer dragged on. Mum summoned more horse whizzes to solve the issue of The-Horse-That-Wouldn’t-Let-Anyone-Ride-Him. I decided to spend time with Puzzle anyway. I gave up on any expectation of riding him and resolved to get to know him.

Each afternoon after school, I’d scale the fence to his paddock and brush him down. He nuzzled me affectionately and listened patiently as I poured my heart out about being the new kid at a country school with a posh city accent. I’d confide in him as I leaned my head on his neck, sniffing his reassuring earthy horse smell. He had a wicked sense of humour and had me in giggles at his antics. He never let me ride him, but he allowed me to lead him around the pastures, rivers and backwaters of Apiti like a docile pup. Puzzle was a great exploring companion during my first summer in a strange new place.

I was a nine year old city kid trying to acclimatise to country life. Puzzle was a great listener, a non-judgmental ear, a quiet equine counselor.

The moment I started appreciating his unique and powerful gifts that he did have, instead of focusing on what he wasn’t good at, I began to understand and love my idiosyncratic pony. He responded to this gratitude by seeming to shine even more.

I learned a lot from Puzzle that summer. Here are some of the lessons:

Seek out and focus on people's strengths. Too often, we concentrate on trying to fix our team member's weaknesses so much that we overlook the gifts and strengths they do have to offer. Sure, Puzzle would not let me ride him, but he had many other strengths.  

Get to know what your team members love doing (what lights them up) and what they are good at. Look for the intersection between these two things. Then ask, where could these strengths be used to help the team? Perhaps the reason you are struggling is that you are trying to put a square peg in a round hole? Maybe they're right for the team but are in the wrong role. Are you giving them stuff that doesn't play to their strengths? By asking these questions you can get lift off.

When your team member is resistant to something, get curious. If it feels like you’re spending an inordinate amount of time cajoling, pushing, forcing and jollying your team member to do something they don’t want to do, STOP. Pause on the forcing of the WHAT and explore the WHY or WHY NOT.

Don’t assume nonperformance is always about the person being ‘bad’. Don’t write people off too quickly (but don’t let nonperformance languish for ages either).  There are a lot of reasons for non-performance and too often we're quick to blame the person or label them lazy. You may find something surprising.

When mum did some digging, she discovered Puzzle had been severely mistreated by the first person who rode him. He was even ridden when he had a back injury – no wonder he hated it! If mum had given up on Puzzle too soon and sold him, if she had not explored the reasons behind his aversion to being ridden, we would have missed out on all the beautiful gifts he gave us. Seek to understand what is getting in the way of your team member doing what you want them to do. Explore what’s behind the resistance. Seek to understand, before you judge.

Appreciation for what your people are good at AND what they love to do is a wise path for any leader. Puzzle loved going for long walks with me. He offered me comfort with his nuzzles. He followed me around the garden as I did my chores. His strengths were friendliness, humour and his ability to somehow read my feelings. When I let go of any expectation of riding him, and became grateful for what he DID offer, things flowed and improved.

So the next time you have your own version of Puzzle, ask:

Is this person’s nonperformance a matter of ‘will’ or ‘skill’? Is this a matter of motivation (or lack of) or is it because the role is requiring something of them they don’t know how to do?

What are the unique gifts this person brings to the team and how can I harness these?

What are they good at AND enjoy doing? What are our business needs, projects or existing roles which need these strengths? When have I seen them “on fire” or “in flow”?

What are the conditions that see them engaged and performing?

I never did get to ride Puzzle. But just as mum had hoped when she thought to buy me a horse, he did a whole lot to ease my difficult transition. And for that, I am so grateful to him – and mum.

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